Parents, school staff and neighbors are upset that construction of a cell phone tower is underway at the Gunnison High School football field without public input. They contend that proper review of the project did not occur prior to approval.
Despite initially waiving authority on the matter, city leaders are now backtracking the process by requesting that Gunnison Watershed RE1J School District conduct a public hearing on the Verizon tower, and to work with the company to cease construction until that happens. The school district will be required to hold that hearing at the city’s request, according to state statute.
Parents were notified through e-mail on Dec. 7 that the tower construction was underway with an explanation of the project. Included in the e-mail was a link to the American Cancer Society with information on health concerns.
This week, the concerned group of citizens appeared before both School Board and City Council to air their grievances.
According to Superintendent Leslie Nichols, the project began in the spring of 2017.
Former Superintendent Doug Tredway was approached by Verizon to lease school property so an 80-foot tower could be built, replacing a 60-foot light pole on the east edge of the football field.
The new tower is planned to provide lights at the same height and orientation for the field, and the cell antennas would extend above the lights. Verizon also received approval to install equipment on the roof of the Crested Butte Community School. In exchange, RE1J would receive $15,000 per site, for a total of $30,000 annually, from Verizon.
Nichols also noted the benefit of improved connectivity to the school district from the tower in Gunnison, which could be vital in an emergency.
Tredway consulted with former Gunnison Community Development Director Steve Westbay, who in a written response obtained by the Times stated, “As a public school (the tower) is governed by Colorado Code of Regulations (CCR) 8 CCR 1507-30 regarding building codes and therefore is exempt from local building permits. Furthermore, public schools are a matter of state interest and are not regulated by local zoning codes.”
Subsequently, Tredway signed the 10-year contract with Verizon.
But the concerned group of citizens takes issue with state regulations quoted in Westbay’s letter, which pertain specifically to public school buildings and structures — not commercial use, they say.
State law allows a municipality to request that a public hearing on a school district project be held before any construction occurs. After a lengthy executive session Tuesday night, Gunnison City Council directed staff to draft a letter to the School Board stating construction should be stopped until a public hearing could be held on the matter.
City Manager Russ Forrest said the purpose of the hearing would be to inform the public, answer questions, provide Verizon with feedback and allow the company to mitigate concerns. That path was chosen as an alternative to the city pursuing an injunction to halt the project.
Council also directed staff to begin the process of updating the city’s land-use regulations regarding telecommunications projects.
“We need to be prepared for the next application,” Forrest said.
‘Moment of pause’
Monday night, Nichols presented School Board with an overview of the project and some of the concerns being raised — including health and property value impacts. Nichols quoted research which indicated radio frequency emitted from cell phone towers travels horizontally, and greater radio frequency values occur from using a cell phone than standing under a tower.
She also noted Tredway kept the board informed of the project through his “Superintendent’s Report,” which is included in each board meeting and noted on the agenda.
But concerned citizens countered that research on health impacts is not conclusive, and risks are unknown. Chief among the complaints was the lack of review the project received.
Gunnison resident Jonathan Houck — who said he was not speaking as a County Commissioner, but as a neighbor to the project — pushed the School Board to further vet the matter.
Board member Lisa Starkebaum responded that she had researched impacts from cell phones and smart meters — which also utilize radio frequency to transmit data from homes — and found nothing that concerned her.
“Who has a cell phone? Does anyone have a cell phone? Do you have one in your pocket?” Starkebaum said. “You’re getting more from your cell phone than you do from the cell tower.”
But Houck said there are considerations other than simply health risks.
“There’s the lack of process, there’s a lack of transparency,” Houck said. “There’s potential that the city did not contemplate the fact that (the project) is not a school district use.”
Houck said the group was not asking the district to violate its contract, but to help achieve a “moment of pause” until everyone’s needs could be assessed.
‘Our most important assets’
While board member Tyler Martineau said he did not favor delaying the project unconditionally, given the community concern he said time should be given to community discussion. Board member Dale Orth — who apologized for not getting more information on the project in its initial stages — said he was not as much concerned about health impacts, but did feel other aspects of the neighbors complaints were valid.
Nichols recommended delaying the project until radio frequency values could be measured before the tower is activated, so it can be determined if they increase once the site is powered. Nichols also wanted to allow for more time to listen to the community.
“I think our relationship with the community, with parents and families is one of our most important assets that we have in the district,” Nichols said. “Hearing the logic behind the comments tonight — I really anticipated comments more with pitchforks and torches about the health risks.
“I’m not hearing that,” she continued. “I’m hearing a more reasoned concern.”